Angie Epifano’s recent account of sexual assault at Amherst College brought national attention to the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In an article, she described reporting her sexual assault to the Amherst administration and the administration’s egregious response to her case—which included institutionalizing her against her will and refusing to allow her to study abroad, all while making no effort at all to punish her rapist.
At about the same time, we joined with other Harvard students to start a campaign on campus called Our Harvard Can Do Better. To encourage Harvard to re-examine its sexual assault policies and practices, the campaign put a referendum on the recent Undergraduate Council ballot calling for reform in sexual assault policy. The overwhelming student support that this referendum generated (it passed with 85 percent of the vote) suggests that undergraduates are alarmed at aspects of Harvard’s policy, including the use of the phrase “mental incapacitation” without an explanation of exactly what this means and Harvard’s lack of a policy of affirmative consent.
However, while the referendum was mainly policy-driven, what lies at the heart of sexual assault issues on campuses everywhere is the ubiquity and persistence of rape culture, a societal attitude that delegitimizes sexual violence and predisposes people to excuse rapists. Furthermore, this culture creates a general understanding of sexual violence that is limited to heterosexual relationships, thereby delegitimizing non-heterosexual violence. Unfortunately, rape culture is an inescapable aspect of American life today.
A central feature of rape culture is that the main burden of rape prevention is put on potential victims rather than on potential perpetrators, and alleged instances of this can be found on our campus. For example, Johany Pilar, who works in the Freshman Mailroom, told students and coworkers last month that she was sexually harassed at work. Pilar says that when she reported this, she was told that it was probably because she gave too many hugs. This is a prime example of victim-blaming, which happens when people suggest that victims are assaulted because they have not “done enough” to prevent assault. This focuses attention away from the fact that the aggressor acted by their own volition. And unfortunately, stories like Johany Pilar’s—stories that demonstrate the ways in which sexual assault is normalized and explained away in our society—are all too common.
Rape culture is real at Harvard, and is perhaps even more pervasive on campus due to Harvard’s history as an all-male institution. We reinforce rape culture through the ways that we conduct ourselves every day, especially through our language. Trivializing rape with phrases such as “that exam raped me” subtly changes our understanding of sexual assault so that we think of it in a lighthearted way, and strips the word “rape” of much of its meaning until it does not reflect the enormity of the violence that so many experience. This trivialization, in turn, contributes to a culture that does not acknowledge the presence of rape in our communities—leading us to question the veracity of victims’ experiences.
Furthermore, saying things that express public or male control of people’s bodies, especially women’s, shifts the way that we understand bodily agency. People subtly reinforce the idea that women’s bodies exist to be commented upon and dominated through everyday speech. For example, they might tell a woman that she should be grateful when a stranger on the street comments on her body, criticize women for wearing either not enough clothing or too much clothing, or suggest to men that the only important outcome of an interaction with a woman is whether they sleep with her. Statements and suggestions like these cause women to feel less autonomy over their bodies, and pressure men to speak about women in a way that implies domination and conquest on their parts. This distortion of our public understanding of who has control over bodies, and to what level they hold that control, is another important way in which rape culture is reinforced.
We all perpetuate rape culture when we fail to speak up against victim-blaming and slut-shaming comments. However, the fact that we all reinforce this culture means that we also can all take part in dismantling it.
Next Tuesday, there will be a rape culture speak-out, a gathering of people dedicated to creating a safe space in which they can share their experience with rape culture and listen to the voices of others. Our hope is that the speak-out will provide an opportunity not only to validate our experiences but also to demonstrate the solidarity and support that we feel for each other. The speak-out will allow us to recognize that our experiences with rape culture are not isolated incidents, but rather a collective struggle. We hope that through hearing these personal narratives of pain, struggle, and resistance that are so often silenced, students at Harvard will begin to rethink some of their behaviors, and that we can all move toward a common discourse and set of behaviors that are conscious, thoughtful, and productive in dismantling rape culture.
Reed E. McConnell ’15 is a social anthropology concentrator in Quincy House. Kate Sim ’14 is a joint social studies and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Quincy House.